At the start of the movie, the Jewish Krichinsky family is large and extremely close. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all live together in a Baltimore neighborhood called Avalon.
Brothers Gabriel, Hymie and Sam Krichinsky, all immigrants from Russia, are the elders and leaders of the family. Sam (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a masterful storyteller, and tries to pass on the legends and customs of the old country to the younger members of the family. Sam has a son, Jules (Aidan Quinn) and a grandson Michael (Elijah Wood). Elijah adores Sam ,and hangs on his every word.
Over time, the family begins to fragment, as younger members begin to assimilate into the broader American society. Some family members adopt more Anglicized names; Jules takes the last name Kaye, while his cousin Izzy adopts the name Kirk. Others begin moving to the suburbs, which makes traditional family get-togethers difficult, if not impossible. Uncle Gabriel (Lou Jacobi), the family patriarch, disowns his brother Sam and Sam’s children, after a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, and the two never reconcile, even when Sam’s wife dies.
Cousins Izzy Kirk (Kevin Pollak) and Jules Kaye (Aidan Quinn) build an appliance retailing business, which is destroyed by a fire. Michael fears that he caused the fire (he had been playing with fireworks in the warehouse), but is reassured that the fire was not his fault.
It turns out that Izzy had tried to save money by not buying insurance, which means both cousins are bankrupted. They go their separate ways, to different new jobs, and their families become estranged.
Where there had once been one large, extended, close family, there are now only small families living in isolation in suburbia. Elderly Sam, who is becoming increasingly senile, lives with Jules, Jules’ wife Dottie, and Michael in their suburban home, where life now seems to revolve around television.
Decades pass, and at the end, Sam is living in a nursing home. Michael, now an adult, is the only person who still visits him. Michael brings his own young son, also named Sam, to visit his great grandfather. While the elderly Sam points out that Jewish custom frowns on naming children after relatives who are still alive, he is clearly pleased and proud.
Sam sadly tells Michael that, recently, he had attempted to go back to Avalon, but was heartbroken to find that the neighborhood had changed completely. The stores and landmarks that had meant so much to him were all gone. “If I had known things would no longer be,” Sam observes forlornly, “I would have tried to remember better.”
As Michael heads home, he tries to tell his young son some of the stories and family history the elderly Sam had taught him, long ago.
Thanks John L!